Everyone has at least one thing that they know they’re really good at. I know I have a knack for throwing fun dinner parties. For many years, my dinner parties were fun for everyone except for me. While my guests would be enjoying themselves around the table, I’d be in a panic dashing to and fro from the kitchen, fretting about cooking times, and feeling generally stressed out. But over time, I have figured out how to ensure everyone – including myself – has a wonderful time. For me, the secret to throwing an unforgettable dinner party is to think of the entire experience as a recipe: it’s all about balance between food and beverages, the atmosphere, and curating the perfect guest list.
1. FOOD & DRINK
Would you ever purposefully schedule three different meetings for yourself, with three different people, in three different places? Of course not! That’s just asking for a massive anxiety attack, right? Similarly, don’t over schedule yourself when it comes to planning, prepping, and cooking a meal. 1-2 days before the dinner party, look at your menu and ask yourself these two golden questions:
- What can I make before?
- What needs to be done “on the spot”?
For example, let’s say your dinner party menu is a chopped salad, pasta with whatever sauce, and a cake for dessert. Here’s how I personally would attack that, in chronological order:
- 2 DAYS BEFORE: Cook the pasta sauce and store it in the fridge.
- 1 DAY BEFORE: Get the baking out of the way because baking is messy and always stressful (at least for me). For my last dinner party, I served an upside down cake which I made it the night before. I allowed it to cool at room temperature, saran wrapped it, and stored it on my kitchen counter until we were ready to dig in – was delicious and worked like a charm!
- EVENING OF: Prepare the salad the evening of the dinner party with the vinaigrette reserved on the side (very important). Storing your prepped salad in a bowl in your fridge under a lightly dampened paper towel will keep all the veggies fresh and crispy. Keeping the vinaigrette on the side is imperative cause otherwise your salad will be wilted, soggy, and, well, gross.
- ON THE SPOT: If you do all of this before your guests arrive, all you have to do is boil water to cook the pasta and reheat the sauce.
In a nutshell, scheduling your cooking will reduce stress and minimize your dish duty on the backend (yay!). Most importantly, this kind of planning and preparation will ensure that you actually enjoy yourself at your own party, as opposed to being a lonely ball of stress in the kitchen.
When It Comes To Your Menu Be Realistic & Keep It Simple
I know we all want to impress, but when it comes to cooking for multiple people I highly recommend keeping it real. Think of it this way: Your guests are psyched about your gracious invitation to eat at your place. So take the pressure off, be kind to yourself, and don’t attempt to channel René Redzepi (unless you feel really comfortable and confident you can pull it off). Even if your meal is super simple, that doesn’t matter! Your guests are going to be delighted simply for being included, so cook what is fun for you and you know that you can accomplish.
Nix The Mix
I’ve tried to mix special cocktails a few dinner parties I’ve hosted and, frankly, I find them mostly to be a pain in the ass. Unless mixology is fun for you, wine, beer, prosecco, or champagne work just as well in my book, and they require no work outside of “open and pour.”
In my book, it’s totally cool to have music going at your dinner party as long as:
- It’s not super loud – blasting music will stifle conversation.
- It’s not house, Techno, or EDM – you’re throwing a dinner party, not a rave.
- It doesn’t contain lyrics – I find that my mind gets distracted by lyrics, especially when I know the song, and that can be a real hamper on conversation, listening to people, being present, and connecting with people.
When in comes to dinner, full blown lights are a little too jarring (and not flattering!). On the other hand, too dim might make it seem like you’re setting the stage for an orgy. I like to set my light to what I call “The Glow”, which I consider to be a notch above romantic dinner setting. Also, I say YES to candles, but I highly recommend burning unscented candles during a meal. The scented ones can really interfere and overpower the flavors in the food you worked so hard to cook (and not to mention be an allergen issue for some of your guests)!
Be Strategic About Your Invites
I have a friend who is sweet as pie and well meaning, but she has no idea how to curate an evening. For example, she would think that seating an atheist next to a priest would make for absolutely riveting conversation. And I suppose there are are some instances where that pairing might work, but it’s more likely a ticking conversation time bomb (especially as the wine continues to flow). So as you’re putting together your guest list, I invite you to consider the “flow” among your guests. Do these people already know each other and get along? Great! Do they have a common BFF? Perfect! Do they work in the same industry and would have a lot to share? Fab! Do they have completely opposing views, sense of humors, and/or personalities? Hmmm… reconsider.
Hail The Dinner Party Unicorn: Table Anchors
A “table anchor” is someone who you know is unfailingly gracious, a brilliant conversationalist, and intuitively knows how to put anyone at ease. Their natural ability to keep the energy up, the laughter going, and the wine flowing will help to take the pressure off you to be 1000% “on” throughout the dinner. I like to invite 1-3 table anchors per dinner party (depending on the total number of people) and spread their love around the table. When planning my seating arrangements, I strategically place my table anchors first and curate everyone else around them. It’s important, however, not to abuse your table anchors! They are a rare and wonderful friend/dinner party guest unicorn! I learned this the hard way in my 20’s when I abused the graciousness of one of my friends and he stopped accepted dinner party invitation from me for awhile. I suppose he could tell I was putting him to work – I learned my lesson!